This blog post was written as part of MovieRob’s July 2018 Genre Grandeur theme: Bestselling/Popular Novel Adaptations
Long before Michael Crichton resurrected dinosaurs with “Jurassic Park” or even unleashed homicidal cowboy robots on unsuspecting guests (the first time) in WESTWORLD (1973), he wrote a now-classic tale of germ warfare and the scientists who are called in to deal with the aftermath of a satellite that crashes to Earth and unleashes a deadly microorganism.
Published in 1969, “The Andromeda Strain” put Michael Crichton’s name on the map. Compared to his later works such as “Timeline” and even “Jurassic Park”, “The Andromeda Strain” is a much more reserved, detached book that describes the attempts at analyzing the organism and diagnose two survivors with precision.
Renowned director Robert Wise took up the challenge of putting the novel on film. While the book was indeed a popular one, in a lot of ways it isn’t a likely candidate for a movie; it’s a testament to Wise and the crew he assembled that it works as well as it does. Aside from a race against a ticking clock in the final act, there is little action in the story. Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding do a fantastic job of taking what could have been tedious laboratory scenes and turns them into something unsettling and gripping. A sequence where two of the scientists examine the capsule in great detail is helped by revolutionary miniature special effects shots provided by Douglas Trumbull and James Shourt.
Production designer Boris Levin and cinematographer Richard H. Kline team to provide a cold aesthetic to the entire film that works fantastically well (Wise and Kline would again team on the first Star Trek film, giving the Enterprise interiors a similar clinical feel). Gidding also deserves credit in his decision to inject a small bit of diversity into the film by making one scientists in the film a woman (all four are men in Crichton’s novel).
Wise also makes several other shrewd casting decisions. While none of the cast are complete unknowns (James Olson is probably the least recognizable face here), there are no stars in the film. In a behind-the-scenes interview, Wise explained that he would have had a hard time believing a big-name star (he cites Gregory Peck) as a scientist. Instead, actors such as Arthur Hill as the team lead, Jeremy Stone, ground the film with a sense of reality that I agree might have been lost with bigger names. Likewise, David Wayne and Kate Reid, who round out the main cast, are quite good in their roles.
As with his casting decisions, Robert Wise also thought outside of the box when it came to the score for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Not wanting a traditional orchestral score, Wise turned to composer Gil Mellé, who was a pioneer in the realm of electronic and synthesized music. Mellé was most well known at the time for his theme to Rod Serling’s series “Night Gallery” and he had also scored episodes of “Columbo” and later scored “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”
Mellé’s score to THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is difficult to describe. It works quite well in the film, but can be somewhat unlistenable in places on its own. Largely nonmelodic, it reminds me somewhat of the classic Louis and Bebe Barron score for FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN main titles
Much of the unique sound in the score comes from Mellé’s homemade instrument, the “percussotron.” While it is obviously incomplete, there is a very interesting clip on YouTube of Mellé demonstrating the instrument and its use in the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQ28Ze65ixE
Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning that, while the album may be a somewhat difficult listen, the LP version of the score might be one of the coolest-looking records I have ever seen.
The score does work quite well in the context of the film and only adds to the otherworldly, unnerving feeling that permeates throughout. While some of the technology may be dated now, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN works well as an effective scientific thriller that seems all-too plausible.
Because STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME was such a spectacular success, attention quickly turned to another sequel. Due to contractual obligations, the job of directing STAR TREK V was handed over to William Shatner, who also wrote the initial concept for the film. Drawing inspiration from the televangelist phenomenon, Shatners initial outline, subtitled “An Act of Love,” dealt with a holy man on a quest to find God.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME completes a trilogy of films that began with STAR TREK II. Yet in many ways, it also feels completely different from the first two parts in that trilogy and perhaps in the Star Trek franchise as a whole. The tone is noticeably and purposefully lighter, and the extensive location shooting makes the entire film feel much more airy and wide open than the others, which were almost exclusively confined to soundstages.
STAR TREK IV also brought with it a change of composer. James Horner, who had scored the previous two films, departed in favor of Leonard Rosenman, who was a personal friend of director and star Leonard Nimoy. Reportedly, Nimoy had wanted Rosenman to score STAR TREK III, but didn’t have the clout at the time to make it happen. While I would have a hard time imagining anyone other than Horner score SEARCH FOR SPOCK, I don’t think I can hear Horner’s themes working well in STAR TREK IV either. Continue reading “Trek Charts a New Path Home”
Cliff (donning the Rocketeer helmet and rocket for the first time): “How do I look?”
Peevy: “Like a hood ornament.”
When you were a kid, was there anything quite as cool as a rocket pack? Sure, superheroes like Superman can fly, but he’s really an alien from another planet. But a rocket pack? That’s something anyone can strap on and fly off anywhere you wish.
Except that in 1938, the ability to fly takes on a whole other nefarious meaning, because both the U.S. and German armies are trying to develop a working model for military purposes. When the audience first sees the rocket pack, it’s being hauled by two goons across an airfield, with the FBI in hot pursuit, and in the process, they destroy a brand new plane being flown by Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and manage to stash the rocket in a hanger where it is found by Cliff and his friend/father-figure Peevy (Alan Arkin).
That’s the set-up for the 1991 Disney/Touchstone Pictures film THE ROCKETEER, which was Joe Johnston’s second directorial effort (following on 1989’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS). Based on a comic book series, this was Disney’s second foray into comic-inspired films (the first being 1990’s DICK TRACY).
One thing that I completely missed as a kid but sticks out to me now is how, in becoming The Rocketeer, Cliff is really the accidental hero. When he and Peevy find the rocket, neither of them is thinking anything remotely heroic. Their plane crash in the opening sequence also took out a gas truck, and its owner Bigelow (played with wonderful sleeze by Jon Polito) wants them to pay him back for the loss. This makes Cliff’s motivation for keeping and using the rocket one of financial necessity, not a desire to do good or right wrongs.
Not to say that Cliff is a bad guy. He’s just a regular guy with real-world problems, and he sees the rocket as a means to an end. Billy Campbell sometimes gets a bad rap for his performance here, but I rather like him. He’s not especially heroic, but then he really shouldn’t be because he’s not a hero in the normal sense.
He’s also a bit of a dolt when it comes to how he treats his girlfriend, aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). If there’s one fault I can find with the film, it’s that there really isn’t much chemistry between the two actors (despite the fact that they were allegedly dating during filming). This is a relationship because the script says so rather than because the actors sell it, even though they both look the part.
Cliff also quickly finds himself the rival (in more ways than one) with leading man Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Sinclair is obviously a take on Errol Flynn, and Dalton is clearly enjoying himself in the role. First, he is revealed to be behind the gangsters who were trying to steal the rocket, as he admonishes the head of the gang, Eddie Valentine (played, in a real stretch of casting, by Paul Sorvino). Later, Sinclair starts to make a move on Jenny, at least in part because he knows she knows who has the rocket.
He’s also sent his henchman, Lothar (Tiny Ron) in search of the rocket. I suppose it’s their way of calling back to the fact that this is a comic book movie, but Lothar is a bit distracting because of his obvious prosthetic makeup that seems like a leftover from DICK TRACY. The character also disappears for stretches at a time, becoming more of a plot convenience than an actual important element.
Getting back to Cliff, it’s interesting in that when he finally uses the rocket, he does it because he has no other choice. In fact, pretty much every time he becomes The Rocketeer, it’s to clean up a mess he’s created: he first has to rescue an over-the-hill pilot who is only flying because he’s trying to help Cliff out; later, Cliff needs to save Jenny from Sinclair after he uses it to escape a couple of FBI agents who also are after the rocket.
It’s this last wrinkle that might be the film’s only (minor) misstep plot-wise. Adding in the FBI adds a fourth group that either has or wants the rocket, and it’s a bit much to keep straight (as a kid, I remember being confused by who was who). I can forgive the added complexity a bit by the fact that these agents are working for the inventor of the rocket, who is none other than Howard Hughes (the always good Terry O’Quinn). He wants the rocket back to keep it from falling into Nazi hands; Neville Sinclair turns out to be a Nazi agent hiding within Hollywood society.
The presence of the FBI also provides one of my favorite little touches in the film. Towards the end, the FBI and the Valentine gang find themselves on the same side, shooting against the Nazis. At one point, Valentine and one of the agents stop firing their machine guns for a moment, look at each other, have this moment of ironic realization, and resume firing.
Despite a few creaky effects that definitely show their age, the film’s climax aboard a Nazi zeppelin works pretty well, and the final resolution that does Sinclair in calls back nicely to an earlier sequence where the rocket is damaged. I also really enjoy how Sinclair’s fiery plunge takes out the “land” in the “Hollywoodland” sign.
When I first saw THE ROCKETEER I really only knew James Horner based on his scores for STAR TREK II and STAR TREK III. Also being a big fan of John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN (1978), I was a little apprehensive about a composer who I felt was more subdued in his approach (silly me).
Indeed, his opening cue is not bombastic in the classic superhero vein. Instead, Horner wrote an absolutely gorgeous, long-lined melody from which to base the score. His main Rocketeer theme is one of my favorites from Horner’s entire body of work, and it is absolutely gorgeous in its first appearance, performed initially by solo piano over the opening credits. He also wrote a “B Theme” for The Rocketeer, which kicks in just as Cliff’s ill-fated flight takes off:
“Main Title / Takeoff”
In a style similar to Williams, Horner also wrote themes for Jenny and for Sinclair. His “Jenny” theme, which follows her character throughout the film, receives a lovely concert arrangement on the soundtrack that is introduced by piano, strings, harp, and solo French horn:
Sinclair’s themes consist of two motifs. The first is a descending motif similar to the one that Horner used in STAR TREK III to represent the Excelsior. The second, more sinister is four rising notes that are usually played in the low brass. Both make several appearances in the track “Neville Sinclair’s House” which plays over Jenny being brought to Sinclair’s home, his (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce her, and her discovery that he is a Nazi agent.
Excerpts from “Neville Sinclair’s House”
Because this is a superhero film, the action music is arguably the most important part of the score. Despite my unfounded initial reservations about the main theme, Horner does a magnificent job in tweaking his themes for the action cues. My favorite bits come from Cliff’s first appearance as the Rocketeer, as he rescues a pilot in mid-air. A bombastic version of the main theme accompanies Cliff’s attempts to successfully pilot the rocket, including two falls that are wonderfully scored by Horner:
“Flying Circus” excerpt #1
He also brings back the second “flying” motif at the end of this sequence, scoring a humerous bit of action as Cliff flies out of control. This also includes one of the moments I definitely remember from the trailers: Cliff plows through a field as two guys who look like they should be selling Bartles and James wine coolers remark, “biiiig gopher.” It’s also perhaps the best use of the Jew’s harp I’ve ever heard in an action cue (an admittedly short list).
“Flying Circus” excerpt #2
One of the unfair criticisms of James Horner is that he tends to recycle themes from previous scores. While he does do this, I don’t think its to any greater degree than most composers. If anything, he tends to reuse rhythms or short phrases rather than whole themes. For THE ROCKETEER, he does keep this to a minimum, save for the Sinclair theme I mentioned earlier, and his chromatic motif from “Genesis Countdown” in STAR TREK II. This latter motif appears most prominently in the build to the climax, which occurs in Griffith Park Observatory. As the tension builds between Cliff and Sinclair over an exchange of the rocket for Jenny, this motif plays prominently in the underscore. As Cliff manages to turn the Valentine gang against Sinclair (because of his Nazi roots), Sinclair then unleashes a hidden squat of Nazi foot soldiers, followed by the reveal of a giant zeppelin hiding behind the observatory (not sure how this is physically possible but go with it). The remainder of the cue is rounded out by the expected action music featuring the main themes as well as Sinclair and Jenny’s themes.
Excerpt from “Rendesvouz at Griffith Park Observatory”
The final selection is from the final climax of the film, which takes place aboard the zeppelin. Once Sinclair is killed, Cliff (now rocket-less) and Jenny run across the top of the zeppelin which is being engulfed in flames. Finally, Hughes and Peevy arrive in the nick of time to rescue them, as a final statement of Sinclair’s theme plays over the Nazi emblem disappearing in the fire.
Excerpt from “The Zepplin”
All in all, THE ROCKETEER is an immensely enjoyable film that unfortunately didn’t do well at the box office. Joe Johnston does a terrific job nailing a period feel (a talent he would also bring to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER later in his career), and all of the actors perform their roles well. It’s a shame that the film didn’t do as well as it could have on it’s initial release, but it seems to have found an audience thanks to home video. Despite the rash of comic book movies these days, few seem to have the heart and characters of a film like THE ROCKETEER. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.
Looking back at the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Ok, first off: yes, I said the Pirates of the Caribbeantrilogy. I know there are two more films now. To be honest, I haven’t seen them, nor do I really have much interest in doing so. In Pirates 4, the only thing that even piques my interest about it is that Ian McShane plays the villain, and if I’m feeling like I need some Ian McShane, I’ll go watch an an old episode of “Lovejoy.”
I remember when the first film, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) came out. At the time, I just knew it had Johnny Depp in it (and that he was rumored to be quite hilarious) and that it also starred the guy who played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films. I also knew that it was based on a famous Walt Disney ride (this did not fill me with enthusiasm) and that Jerry Bruckheimer was producing it (this made me slightly more interested, though I found Disney/Bruckheimer to be a very strange pairing).
In any event, my parents, my sister, and I went to see it that summer, and I was more than a little surprised in a good way. The movie is incredibly entertaining, laugh out loud funny in places (I still find the early sequence of Jack Sparrow captaining a much smaller ship than expected and then coming into port as it sinks to be quite hilarious), and plot-wise it’s complex enough that it held my interest throughout.
Johnny Depp is indeed quite good here (it’s a shame that he’s played a variation of the exact same character ever since), as is the rest of the cast. Orlando Bloom does quite a good job playing Orlando Bloom. I had never heard of Keira Knightley before seeing this, and I was quite impressed with her here (this opinion would change in future years and other projects). The stand out to me though was Geoffrey Rush, who is clearly having an absolute blast playing Captain Barbossa. He’s easily the most “piratey” of the pirates here, but he still manages to create a real character vs. just a generic “bad pirate” villain.
The production design and direction is also quite good. Gore Verbinski was a name that I really only knew from THE RING (2002). While I really enjoyed that particular film (it’s one of the few decent American remakes of Asian horror films), I didn’t know what to expect for this type of movie. Thankfully, Verbinski shows that he is more than capable of directing a movie with considerable scope, action, and complex visuals.
Shame though about the music. Klaus Badelt is credited with the score, but a closer look reveals a number of the Remote Control-employed Hans Zimmer acolytes who work on so many of Bruckheimer’s projects. I suppose I should give Badelt and co. something of a pass, since they really had mere days to write music for the film. Alan Silvestri had originally been hired to score the film, but for whatever reason, he was let go fairly early on in the process. Instead, we ended up with a rather generic score that could be used in films from a number of different genres.
The most famous cue from the film, “He’s a Pirate” has become well-known (or possibly infamous) over the years, but to me, it’s another of the same generic 3/4 waltz tempo cues that Zimmer and colleagues have been putting out since GLADIATOR (2000). The fact that it has been overplayed by marching bands and TV sports shows ever since hasn’t helped, and the lack of real instrumentation in favor of synth makes it feel like “Zimmer-lite.”
“He’s a Pirate” from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
Here come the sequels…
The success of the first film clearly meant that there would be a sequel, but unfortunately, the filmmakers got a little carried away in terms of scope. Retaining the core group from the first movie, including the actors, director, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio was a smart move. However, the approach the creators took would turn out to be somewhat problematic. Instead of telling two standalone stories, the two sequels, DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006) and AT WORLD’S END (2007) would be two parts of a single story.
Perhaps the best comparison here is to the Matrix Trilogy. In both cases, a successful first film led to not one, but two sequels. These sequels would tell a single story across two films and would show much of the same problems: an overwrought plot that could have been better told in a single film. In both sets of films, we ended up with sequences that add bloat rather than contribute to advancing the story.
On balance, I think the Pirates of the Caribbean double sequels work better. The new characters, especially Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), actually make strong, positive contributions to the story (quick: name one new character from the Matrix sequels who actually improves the proceedings).
Davy Jones is a spectacular amalgam of character work by Nighy and visual effects by ILM. While the environment he is placed in (typically dark and foggy/rainy) helps, he might be, with the possible exception of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, the most convincing CGI character I’d seen to that point. Bill Nighy (whom I would happily watch in anything) gives a quirky take on the character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have become a rather two-dimensional monster.
Likewise, Cutler Beckett, who is the other villain of the two sequels, is an already interesting character made even more so by the fact that he is played by Tom Hollander. Beckett is an official of the East India Trading Company, and as such is an enemy to both the film’s heroes and the entire idea of piracy. He represents a more modern sensibility, which threatens the more romanticized pirate lifestyle.
As for the plot, well…frankly there’s too much of it. The first sequel, DEAD MAN’S CHEST, spends an inordinate amount of time getting to the point. Jack Sparrow’s compass is the initial MacGuffin (I say initial because there are more later. Another warning sign.), so everyone is looking for Captain Jack. The problem is, it takes such a long time to find him (something about a black spot curse and him hiding out on an island of cringe-worthy “savage types”) that I had forgotten why they were looking for him in the first place.
On the way, we meet Beckett, his creepy henchman Mercer, Will Turner (Bloom)’s father, a strange woman named Tia Dalma, and are told tales of a Kraken, Davy Jones, and the importance of a chest, a key, and what’s kept inside that chest. The upshot is that all of these plot points do eventually come together in a way that actually makes sense (if you pay attention—something that, based on reviews, critics don’t expect anymore), but it’s a lot to keep straight on a first viewing.
Again, this is a lot like the Matrix sequels, with the audience having to wait through an interminable opening half of MATRIX: RELOADED to actually get to the point. Unlike that series, however, the payoff in AT WORLD’S END is largely satisfying (if again overlong).
As for the music, Klaus Badelt was jettisoned for the architect of the Media Ventures/Remote Control conglomerate, Hans Zimmer. This move really only provided a marginal improvement for DEAD MAN’S CHEST. Zimmer does provide a new theme (which really seems adapted from Badelt’s music) for Jack Sparrow that bounces from a rather jaunty melody played by the cello to some “Generic Zimmer Waltz” music complete with his usual synthesizer.
His other major thematic contribution is a theme for Davy Jones, which begins and ends as a rather whimsical music box melody that morphs into something more and more tortured as befitting the character.
As for the rest, well, to be honest if really feels like more of the same to me. It’s not bad in the film at all, but it sounds more like a “Remote Control’s Greatest Hits” than anything terribly original.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to film three.
Whether it was because he had more post-production time or he suddenly became inspired by the entire series, Zimmer turned in a score for AT WORLDS END that is miles better than anything that had come before. In addition to building off of his material for DEAD MAN’S CHEST and Badelt’s ubiquitous “He’s a Pirate” theme, Zimmer cranks out two to three massive new themes that, the first time I watched the film, made me wonder where THAT had been all this time.
The first is the more action-oriented theme, which makes its first big appearance during a scene in which the crew finds themselves stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, and they must flip over the boat to escape (just go with it). The entire scene itself is a lot of fun, and ends on an impressive visual of the ocean “draining” backwards much like the water rushing from a bathtub. Note: I’m also including the cue in isolation in case you don’t want to be spoiled by the actual scene.
The second is a new love theme for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, which does considerable overtime, since the two actors seem to have almost no chemistry on screen. The theme is itself two parts, the first played for the more somber moments, including a wonderful rendition on the oboe:
The second part is the more dramatic of the two, and also at times represents the overall romanticism of pirate life. It’s first appearance is what truly made me sit up and pay attention to the music of the film the first time I saw it:
Another cue of note is for the climactic final confrontation with Cutler Beckett. Thinking he has fooled Jack Sparrow, Beckett sees the tide turn as the Flying Dutchman reappears only with someone other than Davy Jones in command. The music provides an emotional underscore to Beckett’s ultimate failure as his ship is literally destroyed all around him. As long as you can get over the “sailing ships don’t work like that!” it’s a wonderfully shot sequence that also provides Tom Hollander the opportunity to do something he does so well: play someone who is overly confident only to suddenly realize that he is completely out of his league. Again, both the scene and the cue in isolation are provided below.
Finally, I leave you with a sample from the ending of the film, which contains both the original “He’s a Pirate” theme and Zimmer’s new thematic material. If anything, it will help to emphasize how much better the new music is:
The original CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL film was a surprisingly entertaining film when I went to see it in the theater. The sequels, while they have their flaws, are also entertaining, at least for the majority of the time. At worst, I would say there’s a good film in there between the two, with an extra two hours of largely unnecessary, but not bad, material. This is what sets these films apart from the Matrix Trilogy, in my opinion, since those two sequels really only have a handful of scenes that are worth the viewer’s time. Here, you have three films that are highly entertaining, well made, and show Johnny Depp at a stage well before his schtick had become tiring. While it could be a challenge to make it through all three in one sitting (there’s nearly 8 hours of film here!), they would make for a fun weekend. Definitely recommended!
Few things are as universally fear-inducing like the the need to undergo a surgical procedure, no matter how minor. But what if that relatively minor procedure were the part of something much more nefarious? This is the question posed by the 1978 film COMA, which was based on physician-turned-author Robin Cook’s 1977 bestseller of the same name.
The success of the novel made it a natural for being adapted as a feature film. Enter another writer who had originally attended medical school: Michael Crichton. Crichton had already made a name for himself with a number of novels including “The Andromeda Strain” and “The Terminal Man”, both of which had a medical angle to them. Crichton had also written and directed the technothriller WESTWORLD (1973), and he was called upon to write the screenplay for COMA and also to direct.
The story centers around physician Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), whose friend undergoes a relatively routine surgical procedure only to end up comatose. Her superiors and colleagues, including fellow resident/boyfriend Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), encourage her to accept what happened as a random, unfortunate medical event. However, Susan isn’t ready to give up looking for answers, especially when another patient in for orthopedic surgery (look kids, it’s Tom Selleck!) also winds up in a coma.
Through the course of her investigation, Susan runs into resistance from the chief of anesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn) and Chief of Surgery Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), and discovers the mysterious Jefferson Institute, where long-term coma patents are being sent. Her guided tour of the facility (as part of a weekly tour for physicians) produces one of the more striking images in medical cinema: rows of coma patients suspended from the ceiling by wires run through their bones (to prevent bedsores, it’s said). The visual of dozens of patients hanging from wires coupled with the sound of multiple ventilators is effectively eerie, as is the almost robotic way that Ms. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) describes the facility (she gives an even more distant and disturbing performance earlier as she meets Susan outside the doors to the Jefferson Institute). The entire scene is wonderfully creepy and simultaneously fantastic and completely plausable.
Here be spoilers
In consultation with two pathologists at the hospital (including Ed Harris in his first film role) begins to suspect that someone has slipped carbon monoxide into the anesthesia. This causes her to begin suspecting Dr. George, and her suspicions are also strengthened when she discovers a radio-controlled gas line that runs into one of the hospital’s operating rooms. Later, when she sneaks away from a tour of the Jefferson Institute, Susan stumbles upon the truth: patients are being put into comas and then moved there so that their organs can be harvested and sold on the black market. When she overhears two workers talking about “George” she becomes convinced of her suspicions.
After a (somewhat hokey) escape from the institute, she brings her findings to Dr. Harris, expecting him to immediately call to have Dr. George arrested. However, it turns out that HE is the one behind everything (his first name is George). Early in the scene, Dr. Harris and Susan both have a drink of scotch. It turns out that he has slipped a drug into her drink that gives her the symptoms of appendicitis. As the drug takes effect, Dr. Harris gives a rather strange soliloquy about medical decision-making (Richard Widmark does good work here, but what he rambles about just doesn’t seem to make sense to me).
I’m fine with Dr. Harris being the ultimate villain (though it’s not really a surprise), but this scene gives rise to my biggest issue with the film. Because of the drug, Dr. Harris is able to convince everyone that she has appendicitis, and that he will be operating on her himself. Of course, the operation will be performed in O.R. 8, which has the secret carbon monoxide line. Luckily for Susan, she is able to clue Mark in enough that he begins to believe what she has been saying. He eventually finds the radio device and stops it before Susan has breathed enough of the poisonous gas to do significant damage.
This is frustrating on a number of levels. Susan has been the driving force throughout the film. Even when everyone else (all men, including her boyfriend) urge her to give up on the investigation, she persists and eventually uncovers the truth. But here, in the final moments of the movie, she becomes a frustratingly cliché “damsel in distress.” Not only that, but Mark has been a naysayer for the entire film, constantly questioning Susan’s line of investigation, but here, he “comes around” at just the nick of time.
I suppose it’s not as bad as in the novel, where Susan’s fate isn’t even addressed (the reader is left hanging as to whether or not she survives), but it’s still annoying to have a film with a driven, professional female main character only to see her sidelined at the very end, dependent on her boyfriend to save her life.
That moment at the end does result in one of my favorite directorial touches that Crichton does in the film (his style is relatively perfunctory, with only a few moments of “flash”). I’m not even sure why I like it as much as I do, but there’s something clever to me about how they (literally) turn out the lights on Dr. Harris and his scheme, followed by a hard crash to the credits:
Of course, this scene also provides a good example of the music in the film, which was composed by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith, who would work with Michael Crichton a year later on THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1979), turns in a score that works incredibly well in the film, but is a rather difficult listen in isolation.
Goldsmith had famously used a device called the Echoplex in previous scores, most notably PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and PATTON (1970). Essentially a tape delay effect, the Echoplex allows for notes to be repeated synthetically (again, the most famous use of this may be the fading trumpet notes in PATTON). For COMA, Goldsmith would again use this effect to a great extent, particularly for a two-chord motif that forms the backbone to the entire score.
“Stranger on the Street”
Notably, the entire first half of the movie is unscored, with the music only beginning once Susan notices a strange man watching her from across the street. I should say that this man follows Susan throughout the middle third of the film, culminating in a VERY creepy visit to where they store medical school cadavers…
This cue features both the Echoplex motif and the main “suspense” theme for the film: an unsettling melodic line in the high strings. Much of the score is similar in feel, working much better in the film than as a stand-alone listen.
“Cape Cod Weekend”
In addition to the main theme, Goldsmith wrote a love theme for Susan Wheeler and Mark Bellows. Played over a, frankly awkward montage, the theme is unfortunately a rather generic pop-score mishmash of “generic Goldsmith melodies.” I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the theme is simply out of place for the rest of the score (and the film), and it comes off as a Goldsmith-lite of sorts. Not one of my favorites…
Worse still, because this was the 70s, the score album contains the requisite disco version that I will spare you from.
Much more interesting is the cue that follows Susan and Mark as they stumble upon the infamous Jefferson Institute. After the main theme returns, this time on low register clarinets, the strange, brutalist-style building comes into view accompanied by a swirl of piano and percussion that sounds reminiscent of Goldsmith’s PLANET OF THE APES (1968) score. After a (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) Herrmann-esque series of low clarinet chords, Susan approaches the building as thick string chords play a motif that is very much similar to what Goldsmith would write a year later in his superb score to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).
All in all, COMA is a rather effective and largely realistic medical thriller that suffers somewhat by an unfortunate lapse into a stereotypical “damsel in distress” ending. Given the controversies even today surrounding organ donation, the plot isn’t all that far-fetched. Plot issues aside, all of the actors perform their roles well, and while I can’t really recommend the music as a stand-alone listen, Jerry Goldsmith turns in a typically effective score in the film itself.
If this blogathon has turned you on to the idea of watching some Medicine In The Movies, and you like a solid medical thriller, I definitely recommend checking out COMA. Just don’t watch it if you have any procedures planned in the coming weeks!
“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”
As further evidence that network television executives are seemingly incapable of coming up with new ideas, ABC has launched a TV version of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 directorial debut, TIME AFTER TIME. Honestly, I’ve not checked in on that attempt at a remake (as of now), but there’s quite a bit to say about the original film.
Previously, Meyer had been best known for his Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” while he would soon become the man who helped save the Star Trek film franchise. In between, he would write the screenplay for and direct TIME AFTER TIME, which was based on an original story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes.
On its face, it’s a rather silly premise. In 1893, Victorian novelist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who would later become famous for such stories as “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds” has actually built a working time machine, but so far has lacked the nerve to test it out. Over dinner with several of his friends and colleagues, including surgeon John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), he shows off his new machine and states that he plans to soon travel into the future to a time when, he believes, the social utopia will have been achieved.
His gathering is soon interrupted by the police—it turns out that Dr. Stevenson is really the notorious Jack the Ripper, and he has come to dinner immediately after committing yet another murder. As the police search Wells’s house, Stevenson steals the time machine and escapes to 1979. Thanks to a homing feature that really doesn’t make sense if you think about it, the machine soon returns, allowing Wells to set off in pursuit.
As mentioned earlier, this all sounds a bit silly. At the same time, it opens the door to several different types of stories at once: the “fish out of water” premise, with two Victorian gentlemen thrust into modern (for the time) society; a chase film with Wells tracking Stevenson through San Francisco; and eventually, a love story between Wells and 1979 banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Much of the early scenes in San Francisco play off of Wells’ bafflement at the world if 1979. He is utterly confused about the newspaper headline, “Colts Maul Rams.” A lunch visit to McDonald’s requires Wells to navigate fast food ordering (“I’ll have a Big Mac, fries…and tea to go.” And later, “Pommes frites! ‘Fries’ are pommes frites!”), and he subsequently becomes fascinated with the plastic table (“I never saw wood like this before,” he remarks to another patron).
Most of the success of the film is due to the three great performances. Malcolm McDowell is cast completely against type (he was most known at the time for playing Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE ), yet he is superb as the bookish and somewhat bewildered Wells. Warner is equally excellent as Stevenson, playing a character who is both charming and menacing at the same time. Steenburgen turns in the third quality performance in the film, portraying a strong, modern woman that plays well off of Wells’s Victorian sensibilities, and she and McDowell certainly sell the developing romance between the two characters (the fact that the two actors themselves were beginning a relationship during filming probably helped).
There several stand out sequences worth highlighting. There are essentially two chases in the film: one a foot chase between Wells and Stevenson throughout the Hyatt Regency hotel and surrounding streets; the other involving Wells attempting to drive a car while chasing after Stevenson, who has taken Robbins hostage in her own car. While these two sequences aren’t quite at the level you see today, they certainly hold their own for their time, and they are helped significantly by the musical score (more on that later).
Possibly the best scene takes place right before the first chase, when Wells has tracked Stevenson to his hotel room in San Francisco. Since the opening scenes in 1893, Wells has been convinced that the future will hold a utopian society; however, his experiences in 1979 to this point have provided significant evidence to the contrary (a great beat earlier is when an exhausted Wells, an atheist, finds himself praying for refuge in a church only to be immediately evicted by the priest). Now, to Stevenson’s admitted shock, Wells finds himself standing in his former friend’s hotel room saying that neither of them belong in the future and they must go back. In response, Stevenson first congratulates Wells on his invention and then admonishes him for his belief in a “perfect and harmonious society.” On the contrary, society has moved more in Stevenson’s direction. To emphasize this point, he switches on the television, flicking through channel after channel of death, destruction, and violence, as Wells becomes more and more horrified.
“We don’t belong here? On the contrary, I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. It is you who do not belong here, with your absurd notions of a perfect and harmonious society.”
Stevenson continues to taunt Wells, pointing out the easy access to guns and how American society encourages the ownership of such weapons when Wells finally snaps, smacking Stevenson across the face, “STOP IT!!” Stevenson’s only response is to calmly reply, “It’s catching, isn’t it? Violence.” It’s a scene that carries a lot of weight and is superbly performed.
There are only a couple of issues that I can find with the film. Amy Robbins is portrayed as a strong, modern (for the time) woman, but the film’s final act unfortunately reduces her to a clichéd “woman in distress” who needs to be rescued by Wells. It fits the pattern of Stevenson (and pays off a well-done plot point from earlier) and also gives the three actors the chance to do some fine acting, but it’s also a bit disappointing.
Likewise, Meyer emphasizes not once, but twice, a specific aspect of the time machine’s design in a way that almost provides a flashing neon sign saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER.” In his director’s commentary, Meyer does remark on how film audiences are unlikely to remember things through the entirety of the film and this is probably why he made the choice he did, but it does feel a bit like playing to the lowest common denominator.
According to Nicholas Meyer’s director’s commentary for the film, Warner Brothers initially insisted that TIME AFTER TIME have a contemporary score, as was the norm at the time. Thankfully, Meyer insisted that, because the film was about a 19th century man, the movie needed a score that reflected that sensibility. In the end, he hired a composer who was probably the farthest thing removed from a pop score: Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa.
Rózsa had made a name for himself during the “Golden Age” of cinema and was most well-known for scoring such epics as THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), (QUO VADIS (1951), IVANHOE (1952), BEN-HUR (1959; for which he won an Oscar), and EL CID (1961).
“Warner Bros. Fanfare / Main Title”
Meyer had wanted the film to have an old-fashioned feel to it, to the point where he brought back the Warner Bros. shield logo (having commented that the one in use at the time looked like something that would be stamped on office furniture) and the Max Steiner fanfare. Rózsa expertly transitions from the Steiner fanfare into his main titles, which serve to introduce his main theme that also serves as a motif for the time machine.
This theme also appears when H.G. Wells, having discovered that his friend Stevenson has used the time machine to travel into the future, finally decides to “work up the nerve” to use the machine himself and follow him to 1979. After a brief pause as the machine disappears from his work room, the music resumes, continuing a “tick-tock” rhythm played in the percussion, literally marking the passage of time, with glissandi and other swirling lines from the orchestra giving the sense that the machine may be going out of control.
Stevenson is given two themes in the film. The first is a descending motif that serves as his primary theme, often appearing when he is committing some atrocity or simply lurking about. This cue covers the second of two on-screen murders that occur in the film, also highlighting the “L’Aio de Rotso” that is played by Stevenson’s musical pocket watch.
“The Ripper / Pursuit” (excerpt)
His second theme plays over the first action sequence. After a brief fight in Stevenson’s hotel room, Stevenson runs out the door with Wells in pursuit. The chase then begins in two glass elevator cars, across two levels of the hotel, and finally onto a pair of walkways over the street. Ultimately, Stevenson decides to run for it, until an ill-fated attempt to cross a street against traffic brings the chase to a sudden end.
“The Time Machine Waltz”
One of my favorite cues is barely heard in the film. At one point, Amy takes Wells to lunch, and this piece is played in the background. It’s a lovely waltz performed by piano and orchestra, and it certainly deserves more exposure than it gets in the movie.
“Dangerous Drive” (excerpt)
The final cue I’ll highlight is the second chase of the movie, where Stevenson has forced Robbins to drive him to the museum where the time machine is kept. In response, Wells runs back to Robbins’ house and takes control of her car, speeding off in pursuit. It’s another great instance of writing by Rózsa that covers many of the primary themes, modifying Stevenson’s main theme into a more up-tempo action mode. Playing counterpoint to this is the Wells/time machine theme. The cue wraps up with a more standard playing of the Stevenson theme, as he drags Amy into the museum with Wells close behind.
Overall, TIME AFTER TIME is a somewhat overlooked gem of a film. While it’s certainly not perfect, there is a lot to like here. Once you get over a somewhat goofy premise for a film, you’re left with three strong leading performances and some interesting social commentary. Highly recommended!